What if there was a way for you to make yourself more appealing to potential employers while simultaneously enhancing your academic profile? What if you could accomplish these things while also strengthening your community? Nearly all forward-thinking graduate students would leap at such an opportunity. What too few realize is that this opportunity is already at your fingertips, and it doesn’t even cost a cent.
The secret: start volunteering
When I graduated, I was in a very fortunate situation. While many of my friends were busy job hunting, I was fielding multiple offers. The reason this happened is because while I was a student, I volunteered. A lot. You can achieve similar results by making a habit of volunteering. Here are some steps you can take as a volunteer that will leave both you and your community better off.
The first step is to match your volunteer work with your academic interests and your desired future. I studied political science and wanted to land a job in international development. Consequently, I began volunteering on development projects in sub-Saharan Africa during my summers. Doing this pro- vided invaluable experience in development and allowed me to experience life under a different government. The key is to connect your volunteer work to your future goals. For example, if you want to become a veterinarian, then consider volunteering at an animal shelter. If you want to become a fashion designer, consider working with a program that provides warm clothing to the poor.
Picking an organization
As you begin looking for a volunteer organization that is right for you, you may need some direction. Though you could search online, there is a better way to find opportunities.
Try approaching someone in your field, perhaps a potential employer or a well-respected professor, and explain that you are passionate about their work. Tell them you want to volunteer within the field, but aren’t sure where to begin. Ask them for suggestions about organizations to volunteer with. You’ll notice that when you decide to help others, others will be very willing to help you.
The person who you approached may even be able to help get you into the organization. Be sure to give him or her periodic updates about your volunteer work too; this way, when it comes time to ask for references and look for jobs, you will already have a well-positioned contact to help you out.
As you volunteer, you can bridge the gap between theory and practice by using the knowledge you have gained in the classroom. This will make you not only a better volunteer but also a better student. Following a period of time volunteering in Uganda, I wrote numerous papers on Ugandan development. The papers received good marks because my experience provided me with an informed perspective.
How much time should you commit?
The final element in making your volunteer work incredibly effective for both you and your community is to make it a habit. The most effective projects will need a time commitment on your part. I spent several summers overseas working on development programs. If dedicating your summer doesn’t make sense for you, you can achieve similar results by donating a few hours of your time each week to a cause, and then keeping it up over the course of the year.
If you apply these strategies and become a volunteer while you are a student, you will be setting yourself up for success. Though you are inheriting an incredibly competitive economy, you will stand out amongst your peers and your competition.
When you go to interviews and write cover letters, your volunteer experience in your field will be the perfect topic to discuss. It will show employers and admissions officers alike that you possess the leadership skills, clarity of vision, and genuine passion that virtually every institution craves.
In volunteering your time, you will not only be building a better community, you will also be building a better you.
Jason Connell is a career consultant as well as a public speaker. His presentations (through his company Changing the World 101) focus on how university students can get involved with volunteer projects in the developing world.
Excellent ideas, thank you for these suggestions Jason Connell.
OK Jason,It sounds great to volunteer especially if you get to go abroad, but how did you pay for your trips, let alone fees? While I was busy with my PhD dissertation, I worked part-time so I could pay for the fees and other expenses necessary for field research. Your advice is good for rich kids whose parents pay for their fees who are already at an advantage before they even graduate.
Also, I would like to point out that by the time I had finished my studies, I was well traveled and perfectly bilingual. I still did not get a position…Not enough publication. So the real advice is publish while you study which is silly since you are suppose to be learning! The competition is that hard!
I did six years of volunteer work. I called it a PhD.
Seriously though, I don’t know what field the author of this column is in but volunteer work is not something I’d advise someone to do who studies in the arts or social sciences. Those students would be better off spending any extra time they have pursuing non-academic professional skills. It’s not about competitiveness when there is no job market to compete for in your field.
I think this is a fantastic idea. I wish this would have been stressed more to me and others when I was in college. Most of the volunteering our school promoted was within our campus and community.
“I did six years of volunteer work. I called it a PhD.” Haha! So true! Anyway, this is a great article not just for graduating college students, but for anyone at a crossroads in their life. Thanks for writing this.